Sunday, January 22, 2017

Great Day at Gulfstream from Morning ‘til Night

If there were an opportunity to ensure that Saturday’s Pegasus World Cup Invitational day would be a reprise of what happened yesterday at Gulfstream Park--from early on a low-lying fog-shrouded morning to a champagne-sipping toast to the Thoroughbred champions of 2016, Frank Stronach would be asking: “Where do I sign?”

In what was the final workout of his career, the soon-to-be two-time Horse of the Year worked five furlongs on the Hallandale oval in 58 4/5 seconds, galloping out another furlong in 13, on his left lead into the clubhouse turn with exercise partner Dihigi Gladney never moving a muscle.

In its way, it was the 2016 Pacific Classic of workouts. To merely say that he’s all set for his career finale in six days somehow diminishes the effort.

As prelude to next weekend’s world’s richest dirt race and last evening’s Eclipse Award ceremonies was the Sunshine Millions, featuring some of the best that Florida-breds have to offer competing in five stakes.

If one were to add up the combined winning margins of the Sunshine Millions Filly & Mare Turf, Distaff Sprint, Sprint, Turf and Classic, a total of 1-1/4 lengths would separate the winners from the runners-up.

The best was saved for last when Hy Riverside out-bobbed Nauset Beach in a photo so tight as to be reminiscent of Beholder’s victory over Songbird in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

And it was a nice touch that Hy Riverside gave his local trainer, Antonio Sano, his third winner on the afternoon.

It was a great lead-in to the Eclipse Award ceremonies to follow that went off without a hitch and crisply, until the very end that is.

At that point, California Chrome co-owner Perry Martin went on a nonsensical Trumpian self-aggrandizing rant about the current locale of his abode that began with an attack on Turf Writers, many of who voted his horse worthy of 2016 Horse of the Year recognition.

A saving grace, and completely apropos of the moment, was a Triple Crown-worthy number of tweets that followed:

Jeremy Balan ‏@BH_JBalan: “We can all make fun of Perry Martin but the great shame is that Art Sherman didn't get to speak”
Jay Privman ‏@DRFPrivman: “And you guys thought Coburn was the crazy one”
And, finally, comforting words from Ed DeRosa ‏@EJXD2: “For those who missed Perry Martin's speech, it will be the opening scene of Saw VIII”

Chad Brown, Man on a Mission:
Mission Accomplished

Memorable Moments

Martin’s diatribe did not ruin a good evening. After excusing myself from my unscheduled-in-advance house guests, I retired to my computer and caught moments that were among my favorites. Quotes:

Female Sprint Champion Finest City’s trainer, Eric Kruljack: “When we get great horses, they make us look good. She’s the one I want to thank the most.”

Rick Porter, on losing the Breeders’ Cup Distaff by a desperate nose, thus ending an undefeated career: “If I had to lose to anyone, I couldn’t have picked a better trio than Wayne Hughes, Dick Mandella and Beholder.”

Could not scribble fast enough to quote the territory covered by Outstanding Trainer Chad Brown--as ebullient as anyone has ever seen him, I suspect—who thanked everyone, and we do mean everyone. To wit:

The people who work side-by-side with him every day: Especially five assistant trainers and his bookkeeper, saying that if someone were to kidnap her and take her cell phone it would ‘shut me down’, the jockeys ‘for their bravery’…

And the vets ‘who get a bad rap’, the blacksmiths who ‘take good care of their feet’, horse transporters who ‘get them their safely’, his family for their ‘support and patience’ and the horses ‘for their bravery and consistency’.

And, finally, to Paul Kelly, Shug McGaughey and Bobby Frankel, for teaching him everything he knows and ‘uses every day’.

Javier Castellano, the first rider since Jerry Bailey
to win four straight Eclipse Awards

Hail Colleagues

This missive would be incomplete without kudos to colleagues Andrew Beyer and Steven Crist for a lifetime of achievement in Thoroughbred racing--Beyer for making speed figures mainstream and for inspiring generations of horseplayers, which included Crist, racing’s turf writing’s Renaissance man, who had a final message for the assembled elite:

“Don’t fool with the Triple Crown, it’s your greatest asset so leave it alone.”
“Keep the Breeders’ Cup moving…and bring it back to New York. It’s been 13 years and that’s just plain wrong.”
“Don’t treat medication overages as ‘racing’s latest scandal’.”
“Support Treasury Department reforms…to increase handle.”

Eclipse Margins and Observations:

Classic Empire, 248 votes (unanimous)
Champagne Room 202; New Money Honey 21; Lady Aurelia 11 (1 abstention); BC Juvenile Fillies winner nailed it.
Arrogate 243; Exaggerator 2; Nyquist 2, Gun Runner 1; didn’t realize Steve Asmussen had a vote.
Songbird 248; ‘nuff said.
California Chrome 248; ditto.
Beholder 246, Stellar Wind 2; well, she did beat her once.
Drefong 199, Lord Nelson 29, A.P. Indian 20; BC Sprint dominates, still though margin might have been closer.
Finest City 185, Haveyougoneaway 20, Paulasilverlining 13; BC F&M Sprint rules.
Flintshire 137, Highland Reel 76, Tourist 32; just about right.
Tepin 225, Found 11, Queen’s Trust 7; exactly right.
Rawnaq 171, Top Striker 31, Special Skills 2; thought it might have been just a tad closer.
Owner: Juddmonte 134, Ken and Sarah Ramsey 45, Klaravich Stables & William Lawrence 17; step down, next case, please.
Breeder: Winstar Farm 164, Clearsky Farms 62, Juddmonte Farms 4; obviously deserving but thought it would be closer.
Chad Brown 208, Bob Baffert 21, Mark Casse 11 (one abstention); first and third had career seasons, a little remarkable that Art Sherman only received 3 votes.
Javier Castellano 146, Mike Smith 44, Jose Ortiz 41 (two abstentions); I’m a little upset, no issues with Javier but let’s cancel voting and give award to money-winning rider without all the drama.
Luis Ocasio 182, Lane Luzzi 34, Eric Cancel 1; margin wider than expected.
Live Programming: NBC Sports; unless another major network steals away the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup, NBC will retire this trophy.
TV Features, ESPN; Audio Multi-Media: D, my bad.
Feature Commentary: John Scheinman, second Eclipse for brilliant wordsmith.
Photography: Tod Marks; Kudos in a highly subjective category; there’s plenty of great racing art out there.

Old School in 2016

Way to go longhairs: California Chrome (5-year-old), Beholder (6yo), Tepin (5yo), Rawnaq (9yo).

Way to go Diety: In his final thank you, Rick Porter thanked God for being able to get to Saturday's ceremonies. Porter, like TVG's Simon Bray and racecaller Larry Lederman, are enduring battles with cancer.

Bray, thankfully, appears to be doing well at present but probably no one is more blessed than Lederman. "Bernie," as he is known to his friends, celebrates his 60th birthday Monday after being diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer six years ago this April. God bless one and all, indeed.

Photos by Toni Pricci

Hallandale Beach, FL, January 22, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Even in Small Ways, The Meadowlands Keeps Trying

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 17, 2017—It is no secret that horse racing in New Jersey is in trouble and has been for some time. Competition from casino-enhanced purses in neighboring racing states has dealt a serious blow to its economic viability.

But unlike, say, California, the Garden State’s woes can’t be attributed to lack of trying. Contrarily, when it comes to new ideas, it can be argued New Jersey is one of horse racing’s most progressive jurisdictions and has been for some time.

New Jersey was the first to embrace exchange wagering in the U.S., and while that concept hasn’t set the horse-betting world on fire, it has raised awareness that expansion is possible via diversification and choice given its appeal to a Wall Street mentality.

Exchange wagering pits player against players or player vs. crowd by locking-in prices based on handicapping skill and knowledge of the public’s betting habits. At once, players have diversification and control over their money.

In an effort to spur business, The Meadowlands lowered parimutuel takeout to 15% across the board at its brief all-turf meet. But lowering takeout works best only over the sustained trial periods needed to overcome near term revenue shortfall.

In order to attract people into their buildings or online bet shops, New Jersey horse interests have lobbied for sports wagering, with its venues as gateway, a concept that has received governmental support, then not; public support, then not again.

At blame is hypocritical right-wing attitudes toward gambling and because New York casino interests and sports leagues have lobbied against competitive racinos that are 20 minutes from Manhattan or Westchester County.

Whatever it’s tried, New Jersey has been stymied to the point where horse racing is rapidly becoming unsustainable.

The pressure to stop the bleeding by any means necessary occurred recently when The Meadowlands decided to computerize it the harness-racing morning line earlier this month.

In the big picture this looks like a small issue, but it’s indicative of the fact that horse racing everywhere is failing in its attempts to keep the fans it has, never mind attracting a new audience.

Like handicapping, line-making is an art science, which is how all thinking-man’s gambling games should be approached. It’s as much about feel, gambling soul as it were, as it is about stats. In short, it takes one to know one.

Latter-day bettors can’t even agree on the function of what a morning line should be. Is it a predictor of how the crowd will eventually spread/spend their money or a guide as to how they should bet their money?

At the National Armstrong Daily, I was taught that ideally it’s the former. But more often than not it winds up being a hybrid. That’s not a negative. Setting the line is a thankless job.

A linemaker’s good opinion is never acknowledged; he’s noticed only when a mistake is made and, of course, no one is privy to insider betting until the prices appear on the tote board.

The morning line is important because those quotes greatly impact future betting behavior, especially in the popular sequential pools that attract heavy wagering.

Many regulars argue why bother with setting this guideline at all? Simply allow the opening flash on the tote be what the crowd should bases its wagering on.

That argument has some merit save for the fact many in the crowd could know what constitutes “value” if there was not a pre-set judgment based on objective past performances data. Parimutuel betting is fluid and constantly evolving.

Additionally, mainstream bettors, especially in the simulcast era, have a right to see where the “steam” is coming from? Much of the crowd’s perception is not so much that the game is rigged but rather that it’s too inside and nowhere near as transparent as it should be.

Like humans, computers have limitations, but only the most sophisticated programs can be intuitive as humans, especially practiced horseplayers. And how do we know that humans fed the computer the most relevant information?

But machines are exposed to political pressures that accompanies the linemaker. Can a linemaker set a Hall of Fame trainer’s entrant at 30-1? Can the “house horse” be that price? The pressure is subtle but no less real.

The bottom line is that the public uses the early morning lines to reach decisions and computers know with even less certitude than humans how the crowd with react to disparate dynamics; how does one assess known unknowns from unknowable unknowns?

The early line is important because it impacts perception, be it a race or the entire game. If the novice cannot understand, like many veterans, how or why a particular 10-1 shot opens at 4-5, both camps will know something’s up and further investigation in needed.

Empirically, computer odds have a greater chance of success in harness racing where one mile in a standard distance, stout Standardbreds race much more regularly and trainer stats are available to shade the line in the direction the stats take you.

The Meadowlands is using a computer line generated by Trackmaster. That product has a deserved, good reputation in that area. The track has also assigned a betting expert to review the computer line seeking obvious anomalies.

Handicapping tenets in Thoroughbred racing are more intricate and a lot more subtle. A computer is unlikely to differentiate the worth of a 59-second workout from a Bob Baffert-trained debuting two-year-old compared to one conditioned by Bill Mott.

However, consider this: Comparing a computer-generated Thoroughbred morning line with one constructed by a track linemaker who wears four other hats would be a very difficult call.

A solid, professional morning line is almost taken for granted, and it shouldn’t be. It protects both the public and the sport’s reputation. As such, it’s money very well spent. In that context, the tack in New Jersey is keeping its eye on the prize.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Interesting, Puzzling Year for Eclipse Award Voters

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 2, 2017—In a recent online poll, roughly three out of every four respondents thought that 2016 was a good year for racing. In light of what happened between the fences, I agree.

There were many great performances and memorable moments. As for the rest of the year, we have chronicled the game’s shortcomings here too much already, so we’ll await another time, another day for that.

Please note, however, I must disagree with those who posted that a good number of categories with respect to making cases for 2016’s Eclipse champions were open and shut. Far from that, in our view.

Either way, here is what one final ballot looked like for the racing year 2016 and the thinking process behind some of our choices. But first, our annual disclaimers that all folks who care about such things should know.

As one of the late, great founding members of the National Turf Writers once counseled, there are no rules: “The Horse of the Year can be anything,” said Joe Hirsch. The same applies to other categories; some champions are obvious, others in a beholder’s eyes.

But what it shouldn’t be is a popularity contest or a predictor of who will win. It should be about voting your conscience in the face of peer pressure and regionalism. To wit:

When one California-based horseman was polled on Horse of the Year, his response was: “California Chrome, Art Sherman’s my man.” Friendship and loyalty are wonderful things but Sherman could have gotten this support on the merits: Superb management!

Here, then, is one man’s ballot. [Voters must cast a 1-2-3 vote in order for the category to count or he can abstain].

Two Year Old Male: 1. Classic Empire: Should be unanimous; no colt accomplished more. 2. Mastery: Undefeated, yet to be tested. 3. Practical Joke: Energizer colt just keeps coming and coming...

Two-Year-Old Filly: 1. Champagne Room 2. Lady Aurelia 3. New Money Honey
Considered abstaining here as no filly dominated nor even holds a clear edge. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies was the tie-breaker. The fact that the runners-up here were turf specialists speaks to the above. I easily could have voted Lady Aurelia or New Money Honey #1 and not lost a moment’s sleep.

Three-Year-Old Male:
1. Arrogate: The most dominant sophomore seen this year and probably in most others, too; a freak of nature. 2. Nyquist: All Hail Kentucky Derby! 3. Exaggerator: Had his major wins come over a fast track and he remained healthy, Arrogate might not be such a layover.

Three-Year-Old Filly: 1. Songbird needs no introduction. 2. Cathryn Sophia: A major talent but, on balance, overachieved. 3. Catch a Glimpse: If only she weren’t forced to reach her bottom in the Grade 1, 1-1/4 mile Belmont Oaks Turf…

Older Male: 1. California Chrome: Thanks for the memories, champ. 2. Frosted: Thanks for one of game’s all-time great performances, taking the Met Mile. 3. Melatonin: Not in the same class, but a really nice horse.

Older Female: 1. Beholder: Never, ever went on the road, but what a mare! 2. Cavorting: Seriously talented; love to have seen what she might have become this fall. 3. Stellar Wind: Top class filly ultimately came up one race short.

Male Sprinter: 1. Drefong: The Breeders’ Cup has several events that truly are championship defining; the Sprint is one of them. 2. Lord Nelson: Has one more Grade 1 than his three-year-old stablemate, but not when the whole world was watching. 3. A. P. Indian: Clearly the East’s best, but there’s no speed like SoCal speed.

Female Sprinter: 1. Songbird: Fully realize she did not race at a one-turn distance, but name a faster, more consistent filly of any age. I’m waiting…and let’s be honest. Had she run in the F&M Sprint she would have been 2-5, and who would have beaten her? I’m waiting…think Forego; think Dr. Fager. 2. Cathryn Sophia: Kentucky Oaks winner won G2 7-furlong Forward Gal. 3. Finest City: For me, the F&M Sprint is another of those championship defining events, not this time.

Male Turf Horse: 1. Flintshire: Some tossing and turning on this one but was America’s best turf horse this year save for one absurd-dynamics soft-course loss and a tough-luck Turf placing. Has the same number of G1s this year as his championship rival. 2. Highland Reel: Stole the Turf; may steal the title, too. 3. Tourist: BC Mile winner also won Saratoga’s G2 Fourstardave.

Female Turf Horse: 1. Tepin: Dominated much of 2016, winning six of eight with two placings [all graded; three Grade 1s] and held form after history-making Ascot performance while completely out of her comfort zone. 2. Miss Temple City: Also three G1s, twice defeating males. In any other year, against any other rival... 3. Lady Eli: For true Thoroughbred lovers, the Story of the Year.

Steeplechase Horse: 1. Rawnaq: Clearly the most accomplished. 2. Top Striker: Is this the reason why Arch Kingsley took a shot in the Allen Jerkens on the flat? 3. Portrade.

Outstanding Owner:
1. California Chrome LLC because sportsmanship matters. 2. Klaravich Stables and William Lawrence: Fifth in earnings with fewest starters; excellent percentage; three-way tie for third in Grade 1s and best across the board graded stakes slate (9) 3-3-3. 3. Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey: Consistent home cooking.

Outstanding Trainer: 1. Chad Brown: One word: Domination! 2. Mark Casse: a career year and developed/managed two likely Eclipse Thoroughbreds; unfortunate timing. 3. Todd Pletcher: Even in an “off year,” second in earnings ($20 million) and graded wins; third in number totals wins; fourth in Grade 1s with seven.

Addendum: The fact that Bob Baffert and Art Sherman are not in our top three should be an indication of the outstanding horsemanship on display at the game’s highest levels in 2016.

Note to DRF, the Eclipse committee, Breeders’ Cup, whomever: Who gets to decide whether and where horses or horsemen appear on the printed pages of Eclipse past performances data? The fact that I couldn’t find Sherman’s name listed anywhere because California Chrome’s Dubai World Cup earnings is considered a category unto itself is absurd.

Why bother considering the grade of the race—or the race at all? We host an end-of-year event, term it World Championships then doesn’t acknowledge an international race of great import when an American race horse wins a Group 1 a half-world away? What’s the point of any of this?

Outstanding Jockey: 1. Jose Ortiz: Dominated New York throughout the year, including Saratoga. Rode 351 winners from 1563 mounts, the highest in both categories, a phenomenal .224 percent, with earnings of $22.9 million. 2. Javier Castellano: Led all riders with $26.8 in earnings, his fourth consecutive money title, and his aggressive skill-set many times is the difference between victory and defeat. 3. Mike Smith had a great year in pressure-packed situations but rode more big-favorite "Cadillacs" than any of his peers. Still, three more Breeders' Cups winning rides; remarkably ageless.

Outstanding Apprentice: Another category in which I seriously considered abstaining. I do not follow the exploits of apprentice riders unless their seasons were Steve Cauthen-like. And so I allowed the stats to dictate: 1. Luis Ocasio. 2. Lane Luzzi. 3. Eric Cancel.

Note that Cancel rode with the *bug for about one-third of the year. Of the apprentices I saw with some regularity, Cancel was the best of them, by a lot.

Outstanding Breeder: 1. Win Star Farm: Have had brief conversations with Elliott Walden but don’t really know anyone else. Excellent percentages across the board with earnings that drowned the competition. (I can’t say I appreciated WinStar’s Belmont Stakes buy-a-rabbit tack. There’s no rule against it; just really bad optics). 2. Clearsky Farm: When represented by Arrogate and Lord Nelson, you’ve had a damn good year. 3. Darley: Consistent quality and quantity, virtually every year.

And now, again, I’m forced to play the Joe Hirsch card: It’s how I was raised in this game. As all are aware, the arguments for Horse of the Year represent disparate philosophies: Head-to-Head vs Body of Work.

I believe both are of equal measure, meaning a strong argument-against either cannot be made; whereas an endless argument-for can be, #boundless dilemma.

So, in recognition of a horse that has had a target on its back all year, winning Grade 1s over a span of 10,000 miles and dominated the NTRA Poll for an entire year, right up to the finish of the BC Classic, in which he gave the winner a couple of pounds over 10 grueling furlongs:

HORSE OF THE YEAR: 1. California Chrome. 2. Arrogate. 3. Songbird.

Written by John Pricci

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